Career enhancement for ethnic minorities at Southampton Institute

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To improve the career prospects of minority ethnic students, who are nearly twice as likely to experience unemployment when compared with their white peers, Southampton Institute (SI) has introduced a unique career enhancement scheme.

The Institute's MERITS (Minority Ethnic Recruitment, Information, Training and Support) programme provides the student participants with the ability to develop the skills required to successfully obtain employment and to help them to gain confidence for entering the graduate labour market.

Phil Gibson, head of student support at SI, explains how the programme came about. "We started focusing on race and equality in 1997, when we discovered that minority ethnic graduates were more likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts. We wanted to do something about it, so we introduced a programme for the minority ethnic students that involved teaching career management skills."

The problem was that while the students were positive about the scheme, they didn't report feeling any more confident about job prospects. "As soon as we introduced work experience as part of the programme, this changed. Students said their confidence about finding appropriate work was far higher," says Gibson.

More recently, SI - along with five other higher education institutions - received funding for the MERITS programme. Although other institutions also run MERITS, SI believes its programme is unique because they already had the involvement of 12 local employers - B&Q, the BBC, Carswell Gould Associates, the Crown Prosecution Service, Cunard, Ford, HSBC, Meridian Broadcasting, Paris Smith & Randall, Harefield School, Hampshire Constabulary and the NHS.

Crucially, some of these employers are involved in the Institute's employer network, LEADER (Local Employers Acting on Diversity, Equality and Race). "LEADER is an umbrella group of employers from the Southampton region collaborating in order to make tangible progress on building a diverse workforce together with community and social responsibility," he explains. Chaired by SI, LEADER aims include working to eradicate barriers to employability of under-represented groups, focusing upon issues of ethnicity, disability, age, gender and other relevant issues. It also collaborates in order to deliver tangible progress and ensure that effort is not duplicated.

Southampton's comprehensive MERITS career enhancement programme now has two main strands. First, classroom-based seminars to provide professional careers and CV advice and teach career management skills. Second, a combination of work experience, shadowing and mentoring for 35 minority ethnic students and graduates.

Sonia Andrews, who undertook her work placement at the Crown Prosecution Service in Eastleigh, says, "I received a great insight into how the CPS works and the variety of jobs that are involved. Although the CPS wasn't something that I had previously considered, the enjoyable experience has made me seriously consider it.

"I have been exposed to the needs of a large organisation and understand what they require. It puts me in a good position to develop those skills before putting myself on the market."

Mr Gibson says this kind of feedback is typical, adding: "We now have a zero unemployment rate for people who have gone through the programme."